You see it written on the social media bios of millennials everywhere:
I have wanderlust.
The phrase has become pretty ubiquitous lately. And it’s one of my biggest pet peeves.
There’s nothing wrong with the idea, in and of itself. It signals an “intense desire to travel.” And since extended traveling has been shown to improve things like openness, extroversion and emotional stability, you can’t really fault someone for liking it.
But for many people, traveling is not just something they like. They have to lust for it. It’s like the idea becomes Christian Grey. They want it to pin them up against the wall, douse their back in candlewax and call them a filthy slut.
And in essence, that’s what having “wanderlust” can do to your self-esteem.
Riddle me this: If your desire to travel is so strong that you’re literally lusting for it, then what stops you from doing it? Sure. There are plenty of excuses: You’ve got a family! You’ve got friends! You have a job! You’re in school!
But sorry, y’all. If you’re not preparing for a lifestyle that centers around traveling, you don’t actually have an “intense desire to travel.” You have an intense desire to dream.
You see, “Wanderlust” suffers the same problem as many of our dreams: They come from a good place, but many tend to fall in love with the image more than the practice.
It’s hard to blame people for this problem. Between the various Disney movies, advertisements, and national mythoses, we’ve all kinda grown up with the belief that our lives should be really special and awesome. Yet this narrative is pretty un-realistic, and if you fall for it too hard, it can become toxic.
While a little “dreaming” is okay every now and then, the act comes with an inherent problem. What’s more, falling victim to this flaw can take away the control you need in life.
The Utility of Dreams
The biggest problem with dreams is that they cause you to flee from the world in which you actually live. In that sense, they’re useful – because sometimes the world kinda sucks.
Thomas Hobbes famously speculated that the base state of nature is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”Before the rise of societies, our neighbors could club us on the head at any moment and steal all of our food without much consequence.
To flee from this ugliness, Hobbes postulated that a “social contract” emerged in which humans submit themselves to a higher power ( i.e. the law) to maintain civility.
But this contract seems pretty arbitrary in its nature. After all, the same force that caused our ancestors to steal from each other – self-preservation – is still pretty much the basis of our behavior. Yet we construct a system that conceals this ugliness from being displayed in the open, and it helps make our world a little better.
Our dreams serve a similar purpose.
It’s not fun to think that our lives will consist of 45 years and a cubicle, or that the person we’re marrying could turn into a deadbeat alcoholic. So we submit to a dream. In our mind’s eye, we’re on track for a fulfilling, purposeful career with a loving spouse and a big home with a white picket fence.
These visions provide us hope, allowing us to forget that we live in a cruel, uncertain world that could come crashing down on us at any moment. Yet our dreams are merely projections of the mind; we don’t have a goddamned clue if they’re true or not until after we’ve experienced them.
That’s not to say that dreaming is bad. It’s just that too much dreaming much comes with a big problem…
“Dreaming” is often a form of low self-esteem
In many big cities, there are agents whose jobs are to “discover” young talent, guarantee them fame, then get them to pay a large upfront fee for their services. Hucksters like these make a living from exploiting people’s dreams, and the best way to avoid them is to start with the premise that your life is okay as it is.
This trait is what we call self-acceptance, and it is a key component of self-esteem. Yet “dreaming” inherently undermines your ability to accept yourself, because it causes you to reject your current identity.
Identity is a tricky concept, but it can be said to consist of two parts: the external and the internal.
Your external identity is what’s imposed upon on you by the environment. It includes things like your job title, your skin color, your nationality, etc. Conversely, your internal identity is how you perceive yourself in relation to these traits.
A person with healthy self-esteem has a consistent internal/external narrative. She’s honest about her emotions. She’s comfortable with her circumstances. She appreciates the people around her, and she’s not ashamed of her heritage. Basically, she has no shame about her position in life.
On the other hand, a “dreamer” is constantly rejecting her external identity.
She’s the person who always wants a better job, cooler friends, bigger boobs and a different city. Her entire self-concept is geared to reject the environment by which it’s shaped. Thus, she never really accepts herself, and consequently, has low self-esteem.
This reasoning goes against most of what we’re taught to believe. After all, life’s about achieving that Next Big Thing, right? If we’re content with the way things are, what incentive do we have to change?
Here’s the solution to this dilemma…
Dream About What You’re Doing
The main difference between a dream and a goal is action.
When you act, you bring the features from your internal identity out into the external world. This process of bringing your “Inner Self” out is what I call integration, and it’s the main premise of my upcoming book (stay tuned).
But for now, let’s say you’re dreaming about moving to New York. There are tangible steps you can take which would bring you closer to that goal. For instance, you could save $200 every paycheck for your flight. You could begin contacting people within your network who live in the city. You could apply to jobs, apartment complexes, and clubs to join right now.
Yet if you avoid taking these steps, the idea of “moving to New York” is merely a dream. You probably don’t even want to do it. Instead, the idea of escape is what’s attracting you, and that’s an indication of low self-esteem.
In a culture that worships material wealth and achievement, embracing an ordinary life can seem blasphemous. Yet the truth is that most of us are going to be “average” in the long run. That’s like, how math works.
So instead of striving to escape our positions, sometimes the best path forward is to find contentment in the mundane. The novelist David Foster Wallace sums up the idea beautifully in the following quote:
“True heroism is minutes, hours, weeks, year upon year of the quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity and care—with no one there to see or cheer.”
In the absurdity of existence, there’s something courageous about a person who can spend his entire life doing dull, thankless tasks. Perhaps these people are the real heroes – not the ones who blind fate deems beautiful, rich, or intelligent.
That’s not to say we shouldn’t strive for greatness. It’s just that if you have big goals, you should be doing something in your daily life to bring you closer to them.
Because at the end of the day, you are what you do. Thus, loving your actions – both the routine and transcendental – is a feat of self-compassion.
It won’t all be glorious. But when your glory comes from within, your dreams will become a part of the reality in which you reside.